by Georgine Getty
Our tour was set for dusk. Latecomers would be turned away, so we arrived twenty minutes early and sat in the car facing Waverly Hills for the first time.
Between 1912 and 1961, Waverly Hills had served as a sanatorium for thousands of tuberculosis patients. After a failed attempt at being a nursing home, the building sat neglected for over thirty years. The most recent owners had declared it the most haunted place on earth, cashing in on its creep factor by hosting tour packages like the one we had selected to celebrate our anniversary.
The early summer light crept into the night and played tricks on my eyes in greens and purples, but the building was undeniable. Five stories tall, with a central column that had two wings stretching from it, it wove along the top of the hill like a book with its spine cracked permanently open. It looked as though it might collapse dishonestly and with stealth, crushing not like an earthquake, but like a snake. My eyes twitched from staring and I pressed my palms into them, thinking with a Victorian formality, It is the gloaming hour.
“That building is creepy as fuck,” James said.
“Not bad for an anniversary trip. As diseases go, tuberculosis is one of the sexier ones.” I laughed.
After presenting our tickets, we gathered with twenty others in a large room decorated in off-season Halloween décor. A TV in the corner played the Waverly Hills episode of Ghost Hunters. Old photographs lined the walls and the prize photo, enlarged to the point of graininess, showed a dozen skeletal children playing on a swing set. The caption read, Little Patients Taking Sun Bath.
Our tour guide stepped forth with authority. “My grandfather was a butcher here at Waverly and my grandmother worked in the laundry. Daddy had a happy childhood here and I sure wish I could’ve as well.” Short and sturdy, Sandy spoke in the clipped southern drawl unique to native Kentuckians and had the type of brown eyes that were quick to fill with tears.
We followed Sandy into a dark hallway covered with spray-painted ghouls. “Never mind all this. We do a haunted house here around Halloween and they painted up the walls to make it spooky for that.” Sandy dismissed this. We were here for the real ghosts.
We climbed to the second floor, into a long narrow hallway with evenly spaced doorways that opened into small rooms. The symmetry was marred by bright spots of graffiti on the walls.
“This building closed in the 80s and became kind of a party hangout for kids,” Sandy explained. I felt more than imagined the party kids taking items out of backpacks—flashlights, Ouija boards, cans of beer, cassette players. I heard the lies told to parents—I’ll say I’m at your house, you say you’re at mine. I could see the truths and the dares. And Sandy, in denim and braces, armed with her ancestral pedigree, telling stories too detailed to be fake. The boys around her, tickling and teasing to make her stop. Tough guys laughing until the darkness became complete and they didn’t laugh again until the Monday-morning brightness of homeroom.
“So you can see that each patient had their own room, but they didn’t spend much time there because the doctors thought the best thing for them was fresh air,” Sandy said. She led us through the first room and out an archway to an open porch. “Their beds were wheeled out here for twelve hours a day. They were out here in all weather. In fact, electric blankets were invented at the Waverly to keep the patients warm in the winter.”
Our group spread out. James and I went across the hallway to an unoccupied room. The wind had picked up and was blowing through the archway. The depth of the place began to settle around me. I pictured lying on a narrow cot, my body weakened and weighted by a blanket heavy with heating coils.
Unbidden, I thought of the cots where I worked at a homeless shelter. The families rotated from church basement to church basement, sleeping on rollaway cots. The cots were awkward, like the exoskeleton of a rusty bug, and had to be forced open. The mattresses were thin and permanently creased. They were covered in a rubber zippered casing mandated by the Health Department to prevent the spread of bedbugs and protect against bed-wetting.
I stooped, placing my head at cot level, and looked up and over the stone half-wall of the balcony. From this vantage point, I could see the darkening sky through the trees that lined the hill. I have always loved the negative space of sky through tree branches. “At least she had that,” I thought, though I didn’t know who she was.
“What are you doing?” James asked.
“Nothing,” I said, straightening up. My joviality was fraying. I couldn’t make a joke of the trees or the sky.
“Most of the TB patients actually loved it here,” Sandy said from the hallway, gathering us back around her. “That’s why they stayed. None of the nursing home patients stayed. This was a bad place for them.” She produced a ball from one of the rooms and held it casually in her hand. “That brings me to Timmy, my favorite spirit here. He lives on this floor. He was one of the little boys, around five or six when he passed. I’ve seen him a dozen or so times.
Sometimes if you roll a ball down the hallway, he will roll it back.” She rolled the ball and our group grew silent, watching it bounce down the torn tiles until it hit the turn in the hallway and stopped. We waited, staring. The hallway was growing dimmer, and the trees cast long shadows on the peeling paint of the walls.
“Not much activity from Timmy tonight,” Sandy said with practiced timing. “When the overnight groups come in, sometimes they spend the whole night just rolling the ball back and forth to him. Timmy loves it here. It was his only home.” Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. I pictured Sandy at home with a child, a grandchild by now. A little boy with the exuberance of the present, darting between infinite distractions. He would never be content to roll a ball. He would lack the patience afforded to Timmy by eternity.
Our group ascended to the third-floor operating room, famous for thoracoplasty—the surgical removal of ribs, then followed Sandy up the staircase to the fourth. She stopped on the landing, turning to us as we lined the stairs looking up at her.
“Now the fourth floor isn’t so nice. In fact, some of you might want to skip it altogether and meet us on the fifth.” She paused before the stairwell door that had Keep Out hastily spray-painted on it in drippy black.
“I really do hate this floor,” she said. “Not all of the spirits here are sweet like little Timmy.”
Sandy pushed open the door and led the group halfway down the hallway where we were herded around an elevator shaft.
“Here is where we have the most awful ghost at the Waverly.” Sandy paused, gathering her arms around her as if she were chilled. “This is the floor with the Man in White and his dog. We don’t even let the overnight tours onto this floor—it isn’t safe. One tour, we had a bunch of college guys, who didn’t believe in ghosts at all. But one of them went behind the elevator shaft there.” My back was against the column that housed the elevator. I shifted over so the group could stare at the wall behind me.
“I think he meant it maybe as a joke to jump out and scare his friends. Well, he comes running back, white as a sheet and screaming just all hysterical-like. He pushed past everyone, half falls down the stairs and just keeps running. His buddies caught up with him outside the building before he got to the road and he was just pale and screaming. Said he saw this guy—dressed all in white—who jumped out of the elevator at him. Said this guy was pure evil. Says he didn’t know how he knew but he just knew, you know, in his gut, that he had faced pure evil.”
“Have you ever seen the Man in White?” a woman asked.
“No. I’ve never seen him. But another guide here has. Said he saw him down the hallway once, just standing there. They call him the Man in White because he’s just head-to-toe in white. And his dog is white too.”
Little prickles started on my neck and my breathing felt thick. I wondered why the Man in White had not been on the Waverly website.
“The Man in White, he’s the only bad ghost here. Little Timmy, well, this was his home. Other spirits we’ll meet are just sad. But the Man in White, he’s angry.”
“Was he a patient here?” someone asked.
“Nah. None of the patients here are mad like that. The Man in White, he was a hobo guy. He squatted here after the nursing home got shut down. I’ll let you take some pictures now. Sometimes he shows up in the pictures but honestly, he’s one I hope never to meet.”
In the reverential hush that followed, I heard it. A rustle. The exhale of stagnant breath.
It was coming from the elevator shaft behind me.
I felt—irrational and urgent, like the tantrum of a child—that I did not want my back to that elevator shaft any longer. My breath came in shallow sips. I told myself I was being stupid, but the noise was there, and it was getting louder, directly behind my left hip. The height of a dog’s head.
It was a warning. A growl.
I slowly turned around.
It was a shopping bag. Someone had bought a t-shirt in the lobby. My heart started thudding and I laughed, loud and humorless, and got a sharp look from Sandy for breaking the solemnity of the moment.
“What?” James asked.
“Her bag—I—stupid.” My fingertips tingled the way they do after I’ve had a burst of adrenaline and a dark mood started to grow in me as if I were a pair of wool socks, sucking up the dank water of a puddle.
Hobo guy. Yeah. I knew this guy. I knew dozens of this guy.
When people asked why I had left the Homeless Coalition five years earlier, I normally just said something about wanting to see the success stories of working with families. Or I said I was getting too old for an advocacy agency. I said that I needed new challenges. These were true, in their way, but another truth was that I couldn’t take the sadness anymore. There were not many victories at the Homeless Coalition, as its radical intent is that people should be as they are and not as we wish they would be. We cleared space for mental illness, addiction, begging. My job was not to fix these things, but to fix the world instead, forging a bubble of tolerance that was, if not freely given, at least legally protective.
The people of the Homeless Coalition did not get better. They found and lost housing. They fought and lost against disease. They curled in the tiny spaces under bridges and on the margins. I fought beside them, trying and failing and finding comfort in the battle. But by the end, I was tired. My scrapbook was filling with people who had died on the streets. Each person, barely known, was relegated to a single page, with a crappy, photocopied memorial from their funeral. I felt the pressure to bury them all. I felt the pressure to remember them all, aware that nobody else would.
Sandy was right about this—homeless people would have slept here. I did the math. It was empty from the 1980s up to the early 2000s. He would have been a veteran probably. Vietnam. He would have wanted seclusion. Shelters don’t allow dogs. He could have had a cooking fire in here and no one would have bothered him.
There was a guy who lived in a tiny hollow under the I-74 Bridge. He was a veteran too—Iraq. He also had a dog, a medium-sized gray mutt whose hair was missing in patches. He used the dog to keep warm. This guy was legendary, even to other homeless people, who would sometime leave food and cigarettes at the foot of the bridge for him, even though they rarely saw him. One August, the Ohio Department of Transportation needed to do repairs on the bridge, and he was rousted out. The dog went to the pound. This guy had tuberculosis—Laryngeal TB. That meant it lived in his vocal cords, vocal cords he rarely used, but that you could catch almost immediately if he ever did speak to you. The social worker and two of the cops who removed this guy contracted it. They had to be quarantined for weeks. The social worker quit soon after, and one of the cops who had been nice wasn’t nice anymore, not to homeless people. At the time, I thought it was sort of poetic. He was like a curse being forced out of a bottle. There is always a price to pay for bothering things that don’t want to be disturbed.
I was ready for the tour to be over, but we still had the fifth floor. Half of it was enclosed, the rest expanding into an open-air patio. I recognized the patio from the picture of the kids in the lobby. The swing set had been removed.
“This is where they kept the nursery,” Sandy said, her voice thick. “It’s also where they kept the people who went insane from TB of the brain. I’ll let you look around.”
James and I stepped onto the patio. The wind blew hard and my hair kept getting into my mouth.
“They kept the crazy people right next to the kids? That seems like a good idea,” I muttered.
“I should have worn my other shoes. You think this is over soon?” James asked.
“At least there are gargoyles.” I pointed to the statues that lined the four corners of the patio. “Those must have been so comforting to little Timmy playing on his rusty-ass swing set next to the insane asylum.”
“I like gargoyles. Those are cool ones too, all mean-looking.”
“I like gargoyles too. That’s not the point.”
Sandy called us back to the indoor portion of the fifth floor and took us to Room 502.
“This was the nurses’ room. This one nurse hung herself right outside of this room, right here.” Sandy pointed to the rusted string of electrical cords above her head. “When they did her autopsy, they discovered that she was pregnant. The story goes that one of the doctors was the father. Keep in mind in the 1920s, being unwed and pregnant would have been just about the worst thing you could be. The problem was that this doctor was married, and he refused to leave his wife for this nurse. Lots of people have seen a spirit dressed in a nurse’s uniform wandering around the fifth floor. If you’re pregnant and she looks at you, you’ll lose the baby. I don’t think she’s bad or anything, just so full of grief for the baby that she lost that she’ll try to, you know, take other women’s babies so they can be spirits with her. It’s one of our saddest stories. But people say the death tunnel is scarier. That’s next.”
“Did Sandy seriously just shed a tear over a ghost that murders pregnant women?” I whispered to James.
“Let’s just get through the meat chute and then we can go get dinner.”
“Death tunnel,” I corrected.
***How does the tour end? Purchase Volume 5 in our bookstore and find out!***
Georgine has been writing for some time, but was inspired by her attendance at the 2019 Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and this is her first publication. She has been working with people experiencing homelessness for over twenty years and lives in Cincinnati.